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Things Are So Much Better Now: An Analysis of Topoi of Degree in John McWhorter’s Losing the Race

Cameron Privott

Cameron Privott (class of 2014)is from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Although he has yet to declare a major, he is almost certain that he will major in Biology with the intention of one day attending dental school. This year, Cameron is a resident advisor, a member of the Davidson College Elections Council, and the secretary of the College Republicans. In his spare time, Cameron enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with friends. Cameron’s work was produced in Professor Van E. Hillard’s Writing 101: American Racisms.

In 2008, an event occurred that would have been nearly inconceivable fifty years earlier: Barak Obama, an African-American, was elected President of the United States.1 For many, this accomplishment stands as proof that African Americans have made enormous strides since the passages of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In fact, some have gone so far as to claim that we have now entered a post-racial or post-Civil Rights era. While the assertion that aspects of American racism have diminished or disappeared, the important question of just how much racism has declined remains. In his Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, John McWhorter, a linguistics professor and public-intellectual writer, finds that overt racism of the sort that once catalyzed deep inequalities and sponsored disabling prejudice no longer exists, and if vestiges of racism remain, they do so without impinging on the social, political, and economic lives of African Americans.

Instead of linking diminished financial status and troubling educational achievement to white privilege, McWhorter finds that African-Americans are themselves to blame, adhering, in his argument, to what he calls “cults of Victimology, Separatism, and Anti-Intellectualism,” which position African-American citizens as self-saboteurs. This claim that the black community is itself “the main obstacle in achieving the full integration our Civil Rights leaders sought,” is tied to a yet bolder assertion, namely “the idea that white racism is the main obstacle to black success and achievement is now all but obsolete.”2

McWhorter supports his claim of diminished racism by offering comparisons between the racism currently present in the United States and the racism experienced by previous generations of African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era. Setting an imaginary trajectory from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the “mountaintop” idealized in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered in Memphis in 1968, McWhorter charts a path toward continued improvement in race relations. But McWhorter’s progressive charting of racism’s decline is troublesome insofar as he misuses the topoi of degree, an argumentative technique identified by Aristotle as one of the “common topoi,” used by rhetors who wish to argue that some phenomenon (in this case, some state of affairs) is better or worse than some other state, real or imagined.3 McWhorter’s claims of degree regarding the presence (or absence) of racism in the United States rest upon highly relativistic and impressionistic understandings, weakly anchored in “better than/worse than” comparisons that finally tell us little about the exact state of contemporary race relations in the United States.

Instead of linking diminished financial status and troubling educational achievement to white privilege, McWhorter finds that African-Americans are themselves to blame, adhering, in his argument, to what he calls “cults of Victimology, Separatism, and Anti-Intellectualism,” which position African-American citizens as self-saboteurs.

Notice, for instance, how McWhorter arrives at his conclusion regarding the decline in American racism. To be fair, McWhorter does not go so far as to say that every manifestation of racism has disappeared; he reminds us that “only naiveté could lead anyone to suppose that racism does not still exist, or that there are not still problems to be solved.4 Yet, it does seem as if McWhorter is saying that the degree of racism is so minor, so diminished from that of the past, that is is no longer a significant factor in the lives of African Americans. By offering acknowledging that racism does still exist, McWhorter creates for himself a fallback position, a safety net for his arguments of degree.  Still, readers may object to McWhorter’s position regarding the contemporary degree of racism, and point to examples of covert everyday racism as proof that while the presence of overt racism has decreased in the past fifty years, other forms of racism are still commonly experienced by African Americans. McWhorter counters this objection, saying that such instances of implicit and covert racism are simply minor transgressions, not significant enough to be counted as racism under his definition. When his claim of diminished degree is called into question, McWhorter can point to his equivocation, reminding detractors that he is fully aware that certain forms of “weak” racism linger.

McWhorter’s calculation is also facilitated by his quite narrow definition of racism itself. Though he does not stipulate the exact terms of his definition, it appears that McWhorter defines racism as consisting only of overt, macro-level racist acts. This is revealed by racism32-150x150 Things Are So Much Better Now: An Analysis of Topoi of Degree in John McWhorter's Losing the RaceMcWhorter’s focus on how certain vestiges of Jim Crow racism (widespread overt discrimination in the job and housing markets, for instance) are no longer present in any verifiable quantities in the United States. Again, while many African Americans may concede that they do not experience social discrimination in its most robust strains in 2010, many would also agree that racism has taken new forms, more covert and more subtly practiced, but no less damaging.  McWhorter does not address what is typically characterized as systemic racism, discriminatory practices deeply ingrained in all of the major institutions of American society.5 Nor does he account for the covert and subtle contemporary racism that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva examines in his recent Racism Without Racists, which chronicles manifestations of racist practices in everyday speech and social interactions.6 For McWhorter, the contemporary moment of “equal opportunity” is so robust as to make both systemic and covert racism both irrelevant and, worse, illogical.

Fissures begin to appear in McWhorter’s argument when he deploys vague ideals as reference points when calculating the degree of racism currently present in the United States. As mentioned, McWhorter often solicits King’s “mountaintop” as the imagined endpoint of nonracist perfectability: he claims that Americans are “currently in a state of transition,” neither mired in 1960 nor on the mountaintop yet.”7 Yet, he never offers a set of exact criteria by which a judgment can reasonably be made for how far removed African Americans are from 1950 (“we are closer to the mountaintop than we are to 1950”8 ). By using such an idealized benchmark, it is impossible to make exact calculations since the reference point is, by nature, ambiguous. Is the mountaintop only a few close steps away, or are African Americans just slightly closer to the mountaintop that they are to the 1950s? By using such a relativistic barometer, McWhorter can dismiss contemporary concerns as comparatively insignificant.

Another troubling use of the topoi of degree comes with McWhorter’s frequent remark that “Life isn’t perfect,” used to counter claims that residual racism is still a major obstacle for African Americans.9 The solicitation of “perfection” is analogous to his use of the mythic “mountaintop,” both forever out of reach. McWhorter uses this ideal of perfection to justify a seemingly odd assertion–that African Americans need to stop blaming the presence of American racism–in whatever forms–for underachievement.  For McWhorter, African Americans remain victims, not of the actualities of racism, but of their constant hope of perfection in the envisioned shape of a nonracist America.  By using the notion of perfection as a reference point, McWhorter can simultaneously argue that racism currently exists, while also arguing that it is not enough of a problem to hinder the progress of racism32-150x150 Things Are So Much Better Now: An Analysis of Topoi of Degree in John McWhorter's Losing the RaceAfrican Americans in a meaningful way. Yet, this is an impossible irony, as it is not reasonable to construct a claim that advances one position while also advocating for its antithesis. Again, the abstract ideal of perfection is but a hypothetical state that cannot be attained, and should therefore not be solicited as a viable endpoint for measuring racism.

Claims of degree can, of course, be reasonable and even necessary when used to measure certain intangible concepts that defy quantification. Yet, McWhorter’s attempt to evaluate the contemporary degree of racism has serious limits. McWhorter ventures into dangerous territory when he offers comparisons designed to ease readers’ concerns about the present evils of American racism. He does so by minimizing racist harms in comparison with suffering experienced by other groups. Note, for instance, the following comparison between African Americans and Kosovar Albanians:

Victimology, the tendency to exaggerate the degree of black oppression regardless of progress, has understandable roots in the Civil Rights Movement freeing a group with a battered self-image. But white people are no more prone than black people (or any others) to dutifully frame all present-tense experience through a fine historical lens. As such, to the younger white person who never knew segregated America, watching middle class black people depict themselves as similar to Kosovar Albanians in victimhood because they are occasionally passed by a taxi in Manhattan or trailed by a salesclerk, looks like paranoia.10

It is one thing to compare past and present American racisms, but quite another to compare the daily racism endured by contemporary African Americans to the grievous sufferings endured by Kosovar Albanians (who endured, among other harms, genocide at the hands of the Serbs during the 1999 Kosovo conflict). The use of such a reference point seems imprudent, not to say arbitrary or gratuitous. Such an incongruity is akin to saying that homosexuals in the United States should not complain about discrimination in the workplace when their Iranian counterparts are executed simply because of their sexual preference. How can one fairly compare the relative harms of decreased financial benefits in one country to the harms of public murder in another? In order to craft a fair and viable relativistic argument, McWhorter should avoid such “apples to oranges” comparisons, as this tactic serves only to highlight the fragile nature of his claims of degree altogether.

McWhorter’s argument overall is founded on the claim that racism is a lesser contemporary problem than it was in the past. Yet, when one begins to examine his arguments carefully, his fragile foundation upon arbitrary claims of degree is revealed. Simply because a social practice has changed form, or even has diminished in its force, does not make it insignificant. Surely, progress is possible, but perhaps it must be realized outside the realm of comparative calculation.

Bibliography

Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. Lee Honeycutt, I ii 21,  http://www2.iastate.edu/~honey1/Rhetoric. (accessed November 13, 2010).

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009.

Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge, 2001.

McWhorter, John. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

  1. I would like to thank Professor Hillard for helping me identify the appropriate topoi in McWhorter’s text, and Nick Evans for his keen editorial suggestions. []
  2. John McWhorter, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (New York: Harper Collins, 2001): x. []
  3. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. Lee Honeycutt, I ii 21, http://www2.iastate.edu/~honey1/Rhetoric (accessed November 13, 2010). []
  4. McWhorter, Losing, xi. []
  5. For a rich description of systemic racism, see Joe R. Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2001). []
  6. For details about covert racism in theory and practice, see Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 3rd ed. (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009). []
  7. McWhorter, Losing, 26. []
  8. McWhorter, Losing, 110. []
  9. McWhorter, Losing, 19. []
  10. McWhorther, Losing, 212. []
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